struggling with rewrites

(From my Thoughtful Thursdays series on the Oregon News Incubator blog…)

I’ve seen a lot of blog posts lately about getting started with a first draft, of pretty much anything. A novel, a poem, an essay. I’ve even written a couple of those posts myself when I’ve appeared as a guest on other blogs as part of my online book tour in recent weeks. But I haven’t seen much discussion about rewrites.

One reason many new writers may fear the blank page is the mistaken assumption that your material has to flow out of you fully formed and in perfect shape, ready for your editor or even for publication straight out of the gate. In truth, no first draft is going to live up to that. It’s why they call it a first draft — “first,” as in there are others to follow; and “draft” as in there are all sorts of revisions, restructuring and corrections to be made.

Writer's Block 1

As much fun — okay, tortured fun — as writing a first draft can be, I don’t know too many people who get all excited about rewrites. Even when I adore the story I’m working on, a rewrite can be even less enjoyable than getting my teeth drilled. Seriously. I am absolutely in love with my book, “Valhalla,” but when I was in the midst of rewrites, I pretty much wanted to shoot all the characters in the head and be done with it. I still liked the story; I just didn’t like that I had to keep working on it.

One chapter I remember being particularly problematic — when Odin’s clan assembles at the Lodge for the first family meeting that appears in the book. The dreaded Chapter 6. During each round of rewriting, whenever I came around to Chapter 6 again, I pretty much wanted to tear my hair out. I can’t even tell you how many times I wrote, rewrote and restructured that thing. It was a bear of a chapter, from my standpoint, but it’s crucial to the story. I think I finally managed to wrest something decent out of that material, and it carries a nice blend of gravity and humor. So I’m happy with it, now. But it sure wasn’t easy.

I’m trying to keep that in mind these days as I wrestle with a rewrite of “Witches Brew.” I’ve felt the same temptation to just pitch the whole thing in the river, despite the encouragement and praise that came in from some of my early readers. (In the interest of disclosure, however, I’ll admit that Mike won’t read it. Witches aren’t his thing.) I’ve come up with new outlines for the story nearly a half-dozen times and am struggling with point-of-view. I was trying to keep this story smaller and quieter than “Valhalla,” but have come to realize that I’ve scaled too far back, and that I need the outrageous quirkiness that I’d sought to cut out. The ghosts need to be doing more, and I need the POV of more than a single character to carry the story.

My point in sharing all this is to underscore that regardless whether you’re a novice writer or a seasoned professional, every writing project presents a new challenge. Just because I figured out how to tame “Valhalla” doesn’t mean that I don’t have to go right back to the drawing board for each and every story that follows. That’s actually part of what I love about writing as a whole: each project means starting over from scratch and feeling my way through, having to come up with new solutions to new problems.

I still experience a fair amount of angst when it comes to rewrites, and I can procrastinate with the best of them. I have been known to jump at the opportunity to scrub the cats’ box in order to put off working on a rewrite just a bit longer. But I also know I’d never forgive myself if I just gave up and walked away, because the end result is (usually) worth it.

(Creative Commons photo by OkayCityNate / Nate)

Posted in thoughts from the spiral, writing & publishing.


  1. I’m excited to hear that you’re working on a second novel. Obviously, you know you’ll survive your next rewrite. But I hear you, they can become enemy #1 if they last too long. How did you know you were done with Chapter 6?

    • Actually, this is a third novel (my first, “Rhythm,” came out in 2001), but my second ebook, with more to come…

      I knew I was done with Chapter 6 when the text had good flow, with no unnecessary dialogue just there to be funny or cryptic. On my last read through of “Valhalla” before publication, I actually enjoyed reading Chapter 6. The text kept the action moving forward without any distracting or irrelevant side trips.

      I think the reason I had such difficulty with that chapter was that it’s so very meaty and goes a long way toward explaining the present circumstances of the main characters. It brings many of the main players into the same room for the first time. But with the first couple of rewrites, I was cutting whole characters and adding in new subplots, so this one meaty chapter required a lot of rewriting and restructuring with each new draft. Between draft 1 and draft 3, half the characters in that chapter had disappeared!

      I’m beginning to wonder if “Chapter 6” will always be an issue for me… I’m stuck in the middle of Chapter 6 of Witches Brew now. It seems to be the natural place to stop and completely re-imagine the plot line, POV, etc. 😉

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